October 1, 2018, 9:09 pm
Cathedrals, churches and plazas will be crammed with congregations in Colombia for Holy Week, or 'Semana Santa' in Spanish; the most important religious festival of the year. Pilgrimages and processions are still an essential part of Holy Week in Colombia. Commercial exploits of the Catholic holiday have yet to manifest here – the Easter egg and Easter bunny are unquestionably overseas customs.
Travelling in Colombia during Semana Santa can be a challenging affair as public transport and hotel accommodation are booked up way in advance and travel costs go up significantly to reflect the switch from low to high season. For most Colombians, Holy week is a time to travel. Many shops and restaurants are closed for the week and typically overcrowded and congested big cities such as Bogota, Cali and Medellin become more tranquil as city dwellers head to their holiday homes, countryside retreats and traditional towns to celebrate the Easter holidays.
There are a few towns that really come to life and stand out with their own unique and fascinating celebrations during Semana Santa. Throughout Holy Week in Colombia, the usually sleepy colonial towns of Popayan and Mompox are transformed into bustling religious gatherings.
Traditional Semana Santa celebrations in the town of Popayan are some of the most esteemed in Colombia. The famous colonial White City in southwest Colombia boasts the country's largest concentration of churches per capita. Church steeples dominate the town's skyline and around every street corner there is a different church to see. Hundreds and thousands of people crowd the street pavements to watch or participate in the huge religious processions, candlelit masses and ceremonial celebrations that take place throughout the most important week of the Catholic calendar – all accompanied by choirs and orchestras invited from several countries to perform at the highly acclaimed Festival of Sacred Music.
The northern Colombian town of Mompox, declared a historical and architectural world heritage site, has a long history of upholding Semana Santa traditions. Starting back in Holy Week of the year 1564, the wealthy would admonish their sins and attempt to achieve salvation, by donating money, altars and paintings to the Catholic Church. Nowadays, residents of Mompox observe Holy Wednesday in a very distinctive and curious religious celebration. They dress in their best clothing and participate in an evening procession through the streets that concludes in the cemetery where they pass the night at the graves of loved ones, in a candlelit vigil, adorning graves with flowers and celebrating the lives of the dead with music.
While many Bogotanos leave the Colombian capital city during the Easter holidays, certain traditions have been preserved for those that choose to remain. Catholic devotees in Bogota take part in ceremonial pilgrimages to visit seven religious monuments or churches in the city throughout Holy Week to evoke the journey Christ made during his crucifixion. An important part of this pilgrimage is the trip up to a shrine atop Monserrate. While tourists and the non-religious frequently take the cable car or funicular railway for the ride to the top; at this time of year, Catholic believers usually make the pilgrimage on foot, climbing the path to the small church at the summit located at an altitude of over 10,000 feet (3,200 metres). Another important religious site, especially visited during Semana Santa is the Salt Cathedral located in the town of Zipaquirá just outside Bogota, which features underground chapels and a main altar all carved from the salt mine walls.
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